THE most notable thing about the papacy of Pope Francis, from
the outside, is what a ferocious assault he has mounted on the
Catholic Right, and especially its North American part. This is
partially obscured in the secular media because of their belief
that the only interesting doctrines and policies of the Roman
Catholic Church are those that deal with sex. And on sex, his line
has been entirely consistent with tradition: maintain the rules,
but on the understanding that everyone will ignore them.
I think that he is, in fact, more radical and sensible than
this. It seems clear that a shift in the rules on receiving
communion for Roman Catholics who have married after divorce is
being prepared. Although his hands were tied on women's ordination
by John Paul II (who came as near as he could to an infallible
decree pronouncing it impossible), Francis's remarks in his
Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, which was issued
at the end of November, suggest that he wants to see a real shift
of power towards women in the Church.
"Demands that the legitimate rights of women be respected, based
on the firm conviction that men and women are equal in dignity,
present the Church with profound and challenging questions which
cannot be lightly evaded. The reservation of the priesthood to
males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the
Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion, but it can prove
especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified
with power in general."
This is no more ridiculous than the Church of England was 30
years ago, and that, for a pope, is quite an achievement.
AS FOR traditionalists, his attitude is one of magnificent
scorn. He denounces "the self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism of
those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel
superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain
intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the
past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead
to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism.
"In this way, the life of the Church turns into a museum piece
or something which is the property of a select few. Evangelical
fervour is replaced by the empty pleasure of complacency and
The real fire and fervour, however, is devoted to his
denunciations of capitalism and the current global economic system.
The sociologist Kieran Healy has put a quiz online, "Pope Francis
or Karl Marx", which makes the point clear.
Of the ten quotations he uses that denounce the iniquities of
capitalism, only one is from Marx. The clarity and directness of
the Pope's language is shocking. You cannot mistake the target of a
sentence such as this: "We are far from the so‑called 'end of
history', since the conditions for a sustainable and peaceful
development have not yet been adequately articulated and
Also consider this Jeremiad: "When a society - whether local,
national or global - is willing to leave a part of itself on the
fringes, no political programmes or resources spent on
law-enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee
tranquillity. This is not the case simply because inequality
provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system,
but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root. . .
"It is evil crystallized in unjust social structures, which
cannot be the basis of hope for a better future."
THIS might be some of what Lord Williams felt, when he was
Archbishop of Canterbury, but he never managed to express it with
such force and clarity. In any case, any Anglican bishop who said
this would be castigated by the right-wing press. Even in Britain,
Roman Catholic right-wingers are skating over this part of
The American Republicans are now frothing at the mouth at
Francis. There is already a counter-attack from more sophisticated
US right-wingers than Rush Limbaugh (who called the document
"Marxism"): they claim that the real point is that the Pope is not
aligned with the Left on gender politics or sexuality. Also, he
talks a great deal about God. This is true. But Francis takes aim
at all technocratic politics, whether of Right or Left:
"The great danger in today's world, pervaded as it is by
consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet
covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a
blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in
its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others,
no place for the poor. God's voice is no longer heard, the quiet
joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.
This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it,
and end up resentful, angry and listless."
It is simply that the right-wing parties that are currently in
power take this complacent yet covetous heart - that of the
momentarily satisfied consumer - for the summit of human felicity,
or the end of history. And this pope tells us that it is not. Next
year is going to be interesting to watch.